Get Radio Play

Get Radio Play

An older interview but a good one – I’ll be back next week with some new interviews and articles.

 

Meg MacDonald is a Triple A (AAA) independent radio promotion executive and the founder of M:M Music – one of the top independent promotion companies in the country.  She has brought singles from brand new artists to radio as well as huge artists like Coldplay, Paul McCartney, Dave Matthews, Nora Jones and Jack Johnson to name a few and last year was named Triple A Independent Promotion Executive of the Year as voted on by Radio and Record labels at R&R.

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Musician-Coaching-M-M

Musician Coaching:

How does it work for you when you’re working with an artist just starting out and want to bring them to radio?

MM:

We’re very careful in that we don’t pitch new artists to have us work them to radio. M:M Music is very well known in the industry and part of the reason for that is because we’re very careful about who we work. The last thing I ever want to be known as is someone who takes on any record.  It has to make sense.

Most of the independent artists who come to us at the beginning we can’t take to radio. There is no argument that gets a radio station to add Joe Shmoe – no matter how good his record is – over the new Death Cab for Cutie or Foo Fighters.  It doesn’t exist.  When a project comes to us wanting to hire us, our approach quite honestly is to first try and talk them out of hiring us.  We give them every reason to reconsider, every disclaimer with an un-edited lay of the land.

I’m not a saint – I want your money, of course I do, and I don’t want to send business across the street.  However, there is a bigger picture to be considered.  We’re not that company who says yes to everything, we’re very fortunate to be in a position where we can be selective with projects and that’s incredibly important to us because it gets personal.  So many of our friends are musicians and at one time or another, every artist I know has been on the receiving end of the “Screw You” stick in this industry.  It seems that everyone gets whacked……I will never be the one wielding that stick.

The conversations I have with these artists are, “Imagine you’re a program director and you get an average of 100 CD’s on your desk every week. What is going to make them add your song when they’ve got records on their desks from Warner Bros, Atlantic, Capital and Universal and here comes the new Pearl Jam, or David Gray or Colbie Caillat?  Record labels are in the business of putting records out. Your record, as fantastic as it might be, is not going to get the kind of attention you want.  If you were that PD would you add it to your playlist at this point? Be honest.”

If by the end of the phone call, if they still want to go to radio and we as a company agree we like the record, then we come on board.  We focus first on commercial stations in smaller less competitive markets who tend to be more open to newer acts.  We also put a major focus on non-commercial radio stations. Non-commercial (non-com) radio stations are pivotal for breaking artists that are not household names yet. By definition, non-com stations don’t play commercials, so there’s more real estate available on their playlists to take chances on newer acts, and their listeners expect it.

If we have caused them to reconsider radio as their first step, then we try and help them with their next move.  Radio is not always supposed to come first. There are exceptions to every rule, but usually radio is not supposed to come first. Go out and tour. Do you have a management team? If they really are just all by themselves, we try to direct them to people that we trust – people that deal with smaller artists and that sort of thing. And we put them in the right direction there, because they’ll come back to us; because we were honest with them and didn’t just take their money.

Some of the artists we’ve turned down and given that advice to have gone out and hired other indies who took their records on and have spent their entire budgets getting absolutely nowhere. They’ve actually called us back and said, “I wish I would’ve listened to you.” And I’ve said, “I wish you had too, because now you don’t have the money to hire me.”

With all the politicking, the bottom line is, good music is good music. Because we work so closely with these radio stations and help them with everything from assisting them in booking their shows, helping out with giveaways, artist on airs, charity events etc., and because they know we’re not a promotion company that takes every record that comes our way, they do us the courtesy of listening to the records we ask them to. This is incredibly gratifying, and we’ve worked very hard to earn that reputation and gain their trust; they know that we’re just not pushing every piece of schlock on them because we’re getting paid to do so.

I guess the short answer to your question (God is it too late to give a short answer?) – we’re just very honest with the people we work with and paint a very realistic picture. If the artist chooses to go ahead with radio and we feel it’s a solid record, we’ll take it on, but only after we’ve spent time on the phone trying to talk them out of it.  But in the end, you’re responsible, you’re a grown up, we’ve given you every possible reason to view all your options and if you still want to go to radio, we’re your best shot at airplay.

Musician Coaching:

That’s very commendable. At what point would you advise a band that’s on the way up to actually go for radio?

MM:

It’s great when they already have a local or regional story, because for every band making it regionally there are 50 who are not.  If you’re making a dent locally then you’re doing something right.  I’ll ask for their story, what the audience is responding to, how many tickets are they selling, what size clubs are they playing etc.

Sales are still the yardstick by which we measure success. So many radio stations don’t do things like research; they can’t afford it. But they look at sales and say, “I’m the only radio station in town playing this band and they just sold 200 pieces this week.”

I’ll ask a band to give me at least one quote or one piece of valuable info that I can use with programmers because the worst music call I can do is, “Hey, here’s this band you’ve never heard of on a label you’ve never heard of … what do you think?” That’s a terrible music call. The artists, now more than ever, have a responsibility to provide the story. They need to create it and be out there working. They have to be able to come to me and say, “This is what I’ve got.”

Musician Coaching:

I’m less familiar with the triple A format, but I remember the days when WCPR in Biloxi, MS was playing a little unknown band called Three Doors Down and a hard rock station in Florida was playing “Pity for a Dime” by Creed and that launched their career. 

MM:

It does happen, but it’s certainly more rare than in the past.  Radio is still the main conduit for music and breaking new acts and they expect the artist to come with more than they ever have before because there are so many other options for listeners.  The competition is fierce with options like Satellite radio and the enumerable ways in which to get music from the internet.  Listeners now can easily create their own playlists for their cars, they can tune into the all 80’s channel if they want.   It’s certainly a lot different than when I was growing up balancing my tape recorder up against my hi-fi motioning wildly for my sisters to shut up so I could record my favorite song.  Music on demand makes programmers jobs much more challenging than ever before.  But sales speak loudly. So does press. And it significantly helps when both are there for radio to see.

Musician Coaching:

Do you think radio still has the impact it used to have?

MM:

Radio still breaks artists, they are still the gatekeeper.  There was a recent article in Billboard that used research from the Council for Research Excellence (CRE).  What it did was dispel a lot of the myths about how people listen to music. There’s the myth that people don’t listen to radio anymore; according to this study, broadcast radio has the broadest reach and command, the most listening time. Radio has 80% reach and an average of 120 minutes per day from listeners. There was a myth that young people don’t listen to the radio. The CRE found that 79% of listeners from 18-34 listen to broadcast radio and average 104 minutes per day. Radio’s daily reach for younger listeners was only slightly lower in 35-54. It was a talk about not just about radio but also about CD’s. The myth is, nobody listens to CD’s and cassettes anymore. CD’s and cassettes are second in reach behind broadcast radio and get an average of 72 minutes today from users.  History shows us that progress does not mean the death of the past.  Radio was not the end of newspaper, television was not the end of radio, the internet was not the end of anything.

For us, it’s just validating what we already knew, radio is absolutely the key. People listen to radio, and yes people have more choices than ever before on where they get their music.  That’s fine, because it’s challenged radio to rise to the occasion; and they have. Studies show that radio sells. Radio breaks. Where did Nora Jones break out of? Radio. Where did Jack Johnson break? Radio. Colbie Calliat was a combination; she had a huge Myspace following, but she didn’t become known national until radio. Radio is still the key to all of this.

Musician Coaching:

Have you had a story about anybody that was kind of DIY that got radio’s attention with the statistics they were able to capture online?

MM:

One of the most interesting stories to me is Regina Spektor. She is one of the hardest artist to work at radio. Yet Regina debuted in the Top Ten nationally in album sales in almost every market. She sells out venues like the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and it’s like pulling teeth to get radio to play her. They hear her sound as polarizing. Our job is to get it past their ears. Warner Bros conducted on-site interviews with fans coming into and coming out of Regina Spektor shows asking how they came to hear her and become fans.  Overwhelmingly they said through Pandora. So, there is a responsibility for radio to not let themselves get beaten…I love the passion that this format has, and that they take risks; sometimes it’s just more of a challenge to get them to take a chance on something even when it has a tremendous story behind it.  It can be frustrating but is also understandable. Like I said, it’s a lot more competitive out there and that comes with a whole load of caution that wasn’t there 10 or 15 years ago.

Musician Coaching:

When calling radio do you go directly to the MD (Music Director) and the PD (Program Director)?

MM:

Yes.

Musician Coaching:

Do you bring records to DJs or to the local show guy?

MM:

The local shows we work are mainly for the non-commercial radio stations. For the commercial radio stations, we go to the program directors and the music directors. For the non-commercial stations, the non-commercial person on my staff is Crystal Ann Lea, and she’s fantastic. She knows these non-com guys in and out and she works the specialty programs.  For example with a station like KCRW, in Los Angeles, she’ll work music directly to the folks at “Morning Becomes Ecclectic”.   So important is non-com to us that we’re the only independent promotion company with a dedicated, non-commercial radio person.  That’s all she calls. You cannot be as effective on a music call if you’re pressed for time because you have too many stations to call.   If we tried to cover two formats – commercial AAA and non-commercial AAA – there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day.  It’s our obligation to give the records we’re on the best chance, and dividing up the stations and formats allows us to take the time to speak in depth with radio rather than rushing through a list and getting to the next call.

Musician Coaching:

Is there a palpable effect at these smaller non-commercial radio stations on a career?

MM:

Absolutely.  These non-commercial radio stations take chances because they are publicly owned. They don’t have corporate owners breathing down their necks; they are responsible to their communities. The public radio listener is a very specific type of music lover. They support their radio stations and take pride in them. And radio takes pride in bringing them new stuff. They’re not going to settle for just some play list they can hear anywhere.

With other formats, if you drive across the country listening to just that format, you’re going to hear the same songs and all the stations will sound very very similar.   That’s works for them, and that’s fine. But the wonderful thing about Triple A, commercial and non-com, is that if you cross the country you will hear no two stations that sound alike.  Listen to KPRI in San Diego, and then listen to KTCZ in Minneapolis. Listen to WRLT in Nashville and WCOO in Charleston.  Listen to WFUV in New York and KINK in Portland.  You’d never believe they were in the same format.  BDS and Mediabase both produce and print charts for Triple A, same as they do all the other formats.  But the difference is ours is the only chart where you’re going to see Train, Kings of Leon and the Foo Fighters alongside artists like Bob Schneider, Maia Sharp, Rodrigo y Gabriela and NeedtoBreathe.  It’s eclectic as hell and it should be – so are people’s musical tastes.

Musician Coaching:

Do you think that’s why AAA has expanded? Is it beyond the viability of the older music audience? Do you think it’s because they’re able to be so flexible with what they play?

MM:

I think the format has done so well over the past few years because the program directors recognized the potential for success in the Triple A format and embraced their role as tastemakers. They knew that if you want to expose new music, you also have to play the hits and they balance that beautifully.  They have had to prove their success, they did and the labels paid attention. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You treat something as important, and all of a sudden it becomes important.

Musician Coaching:

It’s a different world. I could get Nic Harcourt (Now at KCRW) on the phone as an intern at Atlantic, because nobody cared about WDST. It was a very different world.

MM:

It is a different world, because when Atlantic calls us or Warner Bros calls us, and we’re going over targets, they are talking to us not just about the major markets but they absolutely do care about the smaller markets as well. Maybe not so much on the huge acts, but certainly on the ones we are breaking. We took Serena Ryder’s first single and it was Top Ten. We took Eric Hutchinson’s first single, #1; his second one was Top Five. This is done in AAA.  AAA is also a building block to Hot AC. Hot AC sells more records than AAA overall and Hot AC has a bigger reach, but do you know where they find many of their hits?  Triple A.

Musician Coaching:

That could be said about your non-com vs. com radio stations, No?

MM:

Yes. We have a responsibility to not waste program directors’ time. I think one of the least important things a program director and music director have to do during the week is deal with music calls. It’s incredibly important to us, because that’s what we’re doing. But they are dealing with less staff and are running a company. They don’t have time to take five calls about a record that they’re never going to play.  We have to make our calls count so we listen to our stations online constantly, look at their playlists, read Soundscan so we can see what the top ten albums are in their respective markets.  What’s gone up or down etc.  You have to be educated before you get these guys on the phone; otherwise they’re not going to take your call. You can’t just randomly say, “What do you think of this?” These program directors have a huge responsibility, and we have to respect that and not waste their time.

Musician Coaching:

Do you have any advice for somebody that is selecting an indie to work their record?

MM:

Just be very aware and know about any company you’re calling to work your record.  There are a lot of people out there who need business in this economy so it’s very tough. Don’t listen to just what the person is saying on the phone. Hear what they have to say, but then you need to call around. You need to ask your friends and do your research. It is your responsibility. It’s incredibly important to know who you’re hiring. Look at their website and what they do, and look through the fluff. Look for the person that’s going to say, “No” to you. Look for the person that is going to be honest with you.

Musician Coaching:

On a very small level, before somebody’s ready to go to someone like you for a national campaign, what’s some advice on approaching local radio?

MM:

Don’t just call and say, “Hey, we’re in your backyard.” So are 30 other bands.  Approach it as, “I would be a value on your playlist because” and then insert your reason. It has to be more than just, “I grew up listening to you.”  That’s nice, but that doesn’t help the radio station. This is a business. Give them ammunition and a reason to play you. Offer to play a free show for them.  In your approach, be very respectful. Don’t just say, “I’m local.” Say, “This is where we play, this is the number of tickets we sell” and ask if there is local programming. Offer to do a free show for them to get them interested right away.  And don’t be a pest.  It is not their job to play your music.  It is your job to convince them it’s in their best interest to play your music.  Or hire us to do it for you!

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